Happiness At Work Is More Than What Feels Good

One of the things I’ve encountered frequently over the past 18 months when talking about happiness at work is a corporate fear that we’re somehow introducing a focus on something soft, something that isn’t about work and perhaps even something that will encourage people to do less.  As anyone that has ever offered a response like that to me will attest, I disagree and in the most fundamental way.

No matter what name employers give it, be it employee experience, employee engagement, satisfaction… the goal for most is exactly the same – we want the best version of our people to show up every day.

If you think about that for a moment, how often do you feel like your best version when you’re under pressure, tired, bored, in conflict with others, not respected… my guess is hardly ever.  Yet these are all things we feel at work, and for many people, I suspect they feel them quite frequently.

Science has shown us repeatedly over the past few decades that we do everything better when we’re happier

  • We’re more creative and innovative
  • Our learning receptors turn on
  • We have better cognitive flexibility
  • We take less time off work due to sickness
  • We’re more loyal and stay in our jobs longer (critical for retaining knowledge and experience)
  • We work better with others
  • We’re significantly more productive

Most importantly, our customers (whether internal or external) enjoy a much better experience when interacting with happier people.  All of that adds up to better overall company performance – where companies with happier staff generate significantly better results to the bottom line. And, if all that wasn’t enough, happiness is contagious and is shown to spread through groups and organisations. Whilst I say it doesn’t matter what you call your people programme, Happiness is not engagement by another name; it represents a shift in perspective.

Happiness is much more about the individual; we all understand it and we’re much more likely to want to help.

Engagement is something that companies want from their people, (they’re often measured and rewarded on the results of the annual engagement survey), and the pattern of activity that it’s creating inside firms is increasingly one-sided, and because we see engagement as being about what the company wants (rather than what we want), it often produces reactions that are akin to “you want me to be engaged, go on then, engage me”… “do stuff for me… give me more stuff”.  Happiness is much more about the individual; we all understand it and we’re much more likely to want to help.  With happiness, people are more likely to respond, “I’d like to be happier; how can I help?”

What influences our happiness and our ability to show up as our best version has very little to do with getting more “stuff”, it’s far more fundamental than that.

The point about giving me more “stuff” was reinforced for me earlier this week, when one Chief People Officer, explained that they’re increasingly facing requests for free soda or free food in response to questions about ‘what would make you happier?’ in their employee surveys. But we know this isn’t what makes us happy at work. Don’t get me wrong, if companies choose to offer these things to their employees, that’s great and I’m sure they’ll be enjoyed (if not always appreciated) and they’re sure to be nice little extras as part of an employee proposition.  What influences our happiness and our ability to show up as our best version has very little to do with getting more “stuff”, it’s far more fundamental than that.

I recently shared one of the simplest versions of a happiness at work formula that I’d seen – this one from Netflix – a company that places great emphasis on its culture… Dozens of authors are keen to share their own versions of the key to happiness at work or, more commonly, the secret to getting the best out of people (note that this is still being done to you rather than being about you), but pick anyone and see if it fits this formula.

I’ll pick one – Dan Pink’s view: Purpose, Autonomy, Mastery

Purpose – this is such a fundamental requirement in all businesses that it barely needs explaining, but without understanding why we’re doing what we do (and more than just for the shareholder’s benefit), we can’t possibly have freedom or be given responsibility.  Granted, firms have improved dramatically at understanding why they exist but much work is needed to translate that to the employee level so that we can all understand the meaning of our individual roles – make it something we can really care about.

Autonomy – well, this is almost a direct read-across from freedom, but most firms find this very hard.  Fear grips most corporate entities and therefore they find it very hard to relinquish control, and in fact, seek more and more of it.  Policies, Procedural manuals, rules and a desire for consistency, reduce their ability to allow people to exercise judgement, to act based upon their values (which we hope are aligned to the company’s) and to do what’s right given the circumstances presented to them.  We don’t give people freedom and so they can’t own responsibility.

Mastery – we all have a desire to be great at something (although some people don’t realise that), and when we’re doing something that we really care about, we instinctively want to be get better at it, to learn… to take responsibility for improving the way I do this job so that it will be the best way possible and whilst we might never find the best way possible, we’ll keep searching for new and exciting ways to do it better.

Any company that can create an environment where all those things are possible already sounds like somewhere I could imagine working… they may not want to hire me, but that’s a different thing. I mentioned before that the shift in perspective towards happiness represents a two-way street, and whilst I’ve touched on individual responsibility, there are more things that we see as essential to our happier selves, our best selves showing up every day… and this is much more about ourselves and our behaviour in work.

Just as an intro to this point… a quick did you know?

  • 50% of our happiness comes from our DNA – essentially whether we lean more towards optimism or pessimism – glass-half-full or glass-half-empty… that kind of thing
  • 10% of our happiness is derived from our environment… things that happen to us, where we work and our income etc..
  • 40% of our happiness comes from our daily choices and actions.  How we choose to see things, our reaction to external events, how we behave.

Hopefully, you can see that when our focus is on “give me stuff” we’re influencing the 10%. Whereas there’s a massive 40% to aim at just through our daily actions. This is probably why much of the happiness movement focuses on these actions and choices… choosing your reaction, practicing mindfulness, taking exercise… and they’re all proven to have a huge impact on personal happiness, but I personally think it’s pretty exhausting choosing to be positive in the face of bad behaviours at work.

People you work with can’t really make you happy, that’s in your control… but they can certainly make it a lot easier or harder depending on their behaviours – a topic covered brilliantly by Christine Porath in her book Mastering Civility”.

What we’ve seen about what makes people feel good or bad on Happiness Lab – we’ve never once had anyone say they felt really unhappy because of a lack of free soda.  They feel unhappy because people hadn’t prepared for the meeting and they couldn’t achieve what they needed to.  They feel unhappy because someone decided to change the scope of their project without first discussing it. They feel unhappy because other people hadn’t done what they said they would.

Enabling teams to understand what really matters to them and their colleagues using real data about how they’ve felt over the last working period, exploring what’s been driving both the good bits (so we can replicate them), and the things that have left them feeling less good (so that we can make changes to how we work) is a powerful process, particularly when the teams determine the resulting actions – no-one wants to feel unhappy, quite the opposite… and I don’t know anyone that would want their colleagues to be unhappy either.

Happiness is far more than what feels good, it is not engagement by another name, it is performance improvement with a human approach.


David Bellamy
David Bellamy
DAVID Bellamy is Founder and CEO of Happiness Lab, a business dedicated to helping organizations to unlock the benefits of happiness at work. Happiness Lab’s unique technology platform offers companies a totally different lens through which to view the day-to-day experiences of employees - and represents his first venture into the world of technology development and disruption. Prior to Happiness Lab, David spent 18 years as a management consultant working on projects associated with “every conceivable organizational challenge”. His first book “Cultivating Organisational Happiness” is due out later in 2018.

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  1. “Most importantly, our customers (whether internal or external) enjoy a much better experience when interacting with happier people.”

    So true in my experience, David! Especially — most especially — those in the customer service area, who generally are dealing with unhappy customers every day. I mean, really: Who calls up a company to say “I hope you’re all having a wonderful day!”? We call because we have a problem that needs fixing. So we’re often not at OUR best; we have to hope the CS agents are.

    And when they’re not? It’s really bad for the company. In this digital age, we have more choices that are easier than ever before to find, and a bad experience may be enough for us to search for a new place to buy from.

    I hope your article gets the attention it deserves, David!

    • Thanks for the kind words Susan… sadly, most people don’t move on when they’re not having a good time at work… that’s bad for everyone.